Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What a difference one player makes.

No one addressed it fully in the Locker room. And when directly asked both players and coaches skated around the question. Did Russell's injury affect the team.

The answer is yes.

But they were not the only team who noticed #16 wasn't taking the field. Rutgers also seemed to smell the blood in the water. A team that looked anemic in the first half dropped 23 points in the final two quarters.

And the Scarlet Knight defense did something they couldn't do for the fist 30 minutes. Pressure the quarterback. Both Beck and Evans are pocket passers who just aren't as mobile as Wilson, when pressured they were rushed, knocked down and intercepted.

Although the loss is tough for the Wolfpack. I know everyone was excited when Daniel Evans threw the touchdown strike to Anthony Hill. Although the lead was short-lived how cool was that. Imagine if that had been the game winning drive. Daniel Evans in his final game coming off the bench to lead NC State back for the win.

Sadly to say it wasn't to be. Instead we really saw what a healthy Russell Wilson means to this team as far as wins and losses and the confidence he brings to the locker room.

Pix from Papajohns.com

Mike Glennon and Russell Wilson warming up with the team. The present and future of Wolfpack signal callers

Pix from Papajohns.com

South endzone. Anthony Hill would score the final touchdown of his college career here.

Pix from Papajohns.com

View of Legion Field from the Press Box. Both teams were just getting ready to take the field for pre-game warmups.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sweet Home Alabama

After spending 8 hours and more than 500 miles behind the wheel I'm finally here in Birmingham.

I have to say that the Wolfpack Nation travels WELL. I saw Wolfpack flags the entire drive down here.

Birmingham (for lack of a better phrase) has rolled out the red carpet this weekend. The city hosted an open block party for both schools and everywhere you go people are so helpful. I do have one knock on the cit I-65 sucks. I could not find a southbound entrance to save me life. I circled down town for 15 minutes. I finally had to just go northbound and hit a U-turn at the next exit( really who just builds northbound entrance ramps).

To the game! So I'm really looking forward to match-up between NC State and Rutgers. The Pack's secondary really came into their own as of late and everything they learned from this past season will be tested tomorrow.

Rutgers Quarterback Mike Teel is just a beast. He's tossed for 23 touchdowns and over 3000 yards. The Scarlet Knights by far will pose the biggest test of the year for State. Pack safety Clem Johnson should see sometime tomorrow. He's been out for close to a month with a leg injury. He's experience will be needed on the field but I just wonder if he can adjust to game speed.

Another story line Russell Wilson. It seems like he is always the storyline but he's been just phenomenal. The question will be can he go another game without throwing an interception. He hasn't thrown a pick since September 13th. If he continues his stellar play and commits NO turnovers the day could go quite well for the Pack. But if he losses a ball or two the game could get out of hand fast.

We'll see what happens tomorrow, though time to hit the sack I'm tired.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Driving back after New York

Thoughts as we make our way back from the 34-28 overtime loss to the Giants.

-The Giants are not the best team in the NFC. They benefited from a Panther defense that was without their space-eater in the middle (Kemoeatu), which led the Giants to a 301 rushing performance (their highest single-game total in nearly 50 years). Carolina's defense was porous against the run (obviously), but being down the big fella in the middle certainly didn't help. NY had 107 yards on the ground at the half, and the floodgates opened in the 2nd half.

-The Panther offense was good in the first half, and in the 4th quarter. Seemed like they played it a bit close to the vest in the 3rd, wen they were going into the wind. Almost like playing a prevent against themselves. To me, they needed to assert themselves physically in that stretch, which they did not. Maybe it's just me, but I want to see the "nasty" come out in big game situations. I didn't see that in the 2nd half. Saw it a ton in the first half. The Panthers needed to finish that game, and they did not.

-John Kasay. He's missed 2 kicks all season long, but the one from Sunday night will be remembered longer than all of his makes this season. That's a shame. Kasay faced the music afterwards, Didn't shy away from any questions, and basically said "I missed it." Tough spot to be in, but you have to respect the honesty.

-All is not lost. Carolina will have their hands full next week taking on a New Orleans team that is out of the playoff picture, but would love nothing more than to ruin the Panthers party. A Carolina win locks up the #2 seed, meaning once the Giants bow out of their first playoff game, (which they will, mark my words), the Panthers would then have the chance to host the NFC title game. A loss to New Orleans, coupled with an Atlanta win over St. Louis (which WILL happen next week), means the Panthers become the #5 seed, and no home games, and no bye-week. Enough motivation?

-A quick shout down to the Giants fans. I thought Philadelphia fans were bad (which they are), but Giant fans throwing snow (and ice) balls at the sidelines is not only uncool, it's dangerous. I took one off the back (luckily more snow than ice). Of course, anybody can be a tough guy when they are surrounded by an entire section of people claiming ignorance. Whatever. The Giants post-season will last all of 4 quarters, as someone will find a way to cut their rushing attack in half.

Here's wishing everyone a Happy Holidays, and don't miss the Sports Night 2008 Year in Review show on Christmas Eve!

Mike Solarte

PS-The Panther car flag now is 5-3 lifetime. Ugh.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Road trip thoughts

Making the long drive up to the Big Apple (no, it's not a sign of News 14 being cheap--we need our live truck to get items back in a timely fashion), had a few random thoughts to drop into the blog.

-Thinking about the NFL schedule makers. When the games were released, certainly no one had any idea that the 2 best teams in the NFC would be facing one another, and it could have been any of the teams. It could have been Minnesota-Atlanta, New Orleans-Detroit (yeah, ok), or any of the other matchups in week 16. Very cool that it worked out like this.

-Flex scheduling may be the best thing the league has done for its fans in years. I know the folks at ABC would have preferred they had the control for the Monday Night games before they got out of the business with ESPN taking over, but given the rules in place to flex games, this is about as good as it can get.

-Panthers will have a walk-thru in Charlotte on Saturday before heading into New York. I'll be interested to know if Maake Kemoeatu has a setback, or he progresses towards playing Sunday night. As of Friday, he was questionable with an ankle injury, but he did practice on a limited basis--an improvement from Wednesday and Thursday when he didn't do anything. Limited participation is just slightly more active than not practicing at all, still, being out there is a positive sign. We'll see how it plays out. UPDATE FROM THE ROAD (3:04 p.m.) Panthers placed G Keydrick Vincent on IR Saturday, ending his season. Vincent suffered a groin injury last week against Denver, and injury the Panthers apparently felt would not heal in time to get him back for a playoff run. Panthers promoted DT Nick Hayden from the practice squad to take Vincent's roster spot.

-News 14 alum Lisa Reyes (now working in NYC), tells me 6 inches of snow is expected for Sunday, although she didn't give me a timetable. A snow game, in New York, 0n national tv. Yeah, that's football, baby! UPDATE FROM THE ROAD (3:04 p.m.)-looks like precip during the day, and 15 degrees Sunday night. BRRRRRRRRRRR!!

-Random travel stat: The News 14 newsroom possesses a Carolina Panthers car flag which owns a lifetime road record of 5-2 (2-1 in the 2003 playoffs including the Super Bowl and 3-1 in 2005 with 1 reg. season game, and 3 playoff games). That flag is making this New York trip on Live Unit 2, in the hopes of pushing further north of the .500 mark, and staying as complete as possible in the process. The picture should give you an indication of the miles this baby has seen.

I'll try to post more once we get into the city, and I get any updates on player status. We'll also be live tonight on Sports Night from the Apple, and Tim Baier (happy birthday, Timmy), is staffing the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C. He'll have game coverage from the nation's capital as well.

A busy Sports Night at 10-don't miss it!

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Panthers-Giants...Let the hype begin

Trying to blow this game out of proportion will not be difficult this week. Here's why.

The Carolina Panthers and New York Giants will meet Sunday night, with the winner earning the #1 overall seed in the NFC. With that seed comes home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

That alone makes this the biggest regular-season game the Panthers have ever played in franchise history. Period.

Of course, if Carolina wins, they will also wrap up the NFC South title, which is one of the pre-season goals, but being home throughout the playoffs would be something this franchise has never had. Home field advantage doesn't mean automatic wins in the playoffs, but considering this team went 8-0 on the grass at Bank of America Stadium, it couldn't hurt. Imagine the atmosphere from the Monday night game against Tampa Bay. Now multiply that by 100. Welcome to playoff football for the top seed in the NFC.

This game is winnable for Carolina, no question. The Panthers are running ball as well as any team in the league right now. The defense has slowly regained the form it showed earlier in the season. Special teams have been on point as well. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, as the Giants will be a hungry and desperate team Sunday night. The G-men have dropped 2 in a row, and are in danger of losing that home-field advantage. Media in New York are reporting that Brandon Jacobs has said he will play Sunday night, no matter what his wonky knee feels like.

Injuries are creeping into the Panthers again, with Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and Keydrick Vincent (groin) on the banged up list (an update on both comes Wednesday). Still, Carolina has shown they have depth, especially on the offensive line. Defensively, if Kemo can not go, look for Darwin Walker and Gary Gibson (among others) to help fill the void. Watching what the Cowboys D-line did to New York Sunday night, the Panthers would do well to emulate that scheme.

More on this one after we chat up the players on Wednesday, plus an update to this very blog once the Pro Bowl selections are announced in about an hour.

UPDATE: DE Julius Peppers and LT Jordan Gross were named as starters on the NFC Pro Bowl, while WR Steve Smith and LB Jon Beason made the team as reserves. Noticably absent, RB DeAngelo Williams, who only leads the NFL in touchdowns scored this season. Also left off, LG Travelle Wharton and K John Kasay. Kasay has missed 1 kick all season.

I can almost live with Wharton (Steve Hutchinson from Minnesota & Chris Snee from the New York Giants were voted as starters, with Leonard Davis from Dallas as the reserve). Leaving Williams off is a crime, however. I won't go out and say that Williams is a better overall back than starter Adrian Peterson (Minne.), but his year is on par, if not better than, Michael Turner (Atl) and Clinton Portis (Wash). Williams will likely brush this off on Wednesday (if he is available for interviews), but leading the league in TD's has to count for something. Maybe this will be a motivator for him in New York this Sunday.

Also, read a disturbing note from a Richmond Sr. fan, claiming I was a "homer" for Jack Britt during the 4-AA state final in Chapel Hill during the TV broadcast of the game. I am curious why such a comment was made. Britt was the underdog, based on their 0-8 record against the Raiders all-time. Richmond had the toughest road I can remember to get to the final (beating the West region's #3, #2, and #1 seeds, and then facing the East #1). Also, Britt had 2 double-digit leads on Richmond Sr. Britt was actually winning the game. Twice. As Richmond clawed back, I feel very confident that the broadcast reflected their amazing comeback in very complimentary fashion.

I said it on the broadcast, and I will say it again. Richmond won that game as much as Britt may have lost it (with that untimely fumble with 2 minutes to go). I congratulate both teams, and their fans on tremendous seasons. To call me a homer for either side is laughable, at best.

Mike Solarte

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Thank You and Panthers

As I kickoff this blog entry, I wanted to take a moment to say a heart-felt thank you to all the high school football coaches, players, and fans that helped make the Discount Tire Friday night Final such a rousing success this season. Coaches and players were fantastic to work with throughout the season, fans were great mugging for cameras, and more importantly, calling in those final scores--even if it was your team on the wrong end of the score.

The most thanks, however, goes to our tremendous photographers. Our camera folks were out in the trenches week in and week out, bringing some top shelf video back for the viewers to see, and sometimes doing it against rather tight deadlines. My deepest gratitude to each one of you. It is an honor to work alongside you.

I pass out these thank yous in the hopes that you, the viewer, will check out the culmination of this long high school football season, this Sunday when Jack Britt meets Richmond Sr. at 3pm--a game you can see live on News 14 Carolina. I will be calling the action with Adam Gold providing analysis, and Jim Connors working the field level during the broadcast. All 8 title games will be available on Carolina On Demand (channel 1234) in the early portion of next week, so keep an eye out if your team plays for the ring this weekend. Good luck to all!

Now that the mushy stuff is behind us--the Carolina Panthers will try to wrap up a perfect home schedule Sunday when they host the Denver Broncos. Carolina still has everything to play for, and that should worry the Broncos. Sure, Denver is in first place in the AFC West, but I have to tell you, that is the same as being valedictorian of summer school, or the all-time home run leader in minor league baseball. Denver has a tremendous offense. Jay Cutler has some wonderful receivers to throw to. They have played 5 of their 6 divisional games this season. Why is that significant? The highest ranked defense from the AFC West comes from the San Diego Chargers--and they rank 25th overall. That's the BEST AFC West defense. Basically, Cutler has picked on JV kids in the division.

Here is the REAL reason the Panthers need to be wary of Denver. The Broncos are 3-0 against the NFC South. Yep-they have wins over Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay. Truth be told, only one of those games was a road game for Denver (that was in Atlanta). Still, the NFC South has NO TEAMS at 500 or worse. 3-0 against ATL, NO, and TB is an accomplishment, no matter how you slice it.

Why the Panthers will win:

"Razzle & Dazzle." Yep, the new moniker given the Panthers running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams (Razzle) and Jonathan Stewart (Dazzle), should have a big day against the Broncos. Denver is horrific defensively, and again, they haven't played any real competition save for the NFC South and the New York Jets. The Panthers rushing attack is a well-oiled machine these days, and I look for that to continue Sunday.

By the way, "Razzle & Dazzle" was passed to the RB's by receiver Steve Smith. Apparently, Tennessee runners LenDale White and Chris Johnson had already claimed (and trademarked) "Smash and Dash," something that had been used on the Panther duo. Smith delivered the "breaking news" to the media on Wednesday, in a very light-hearted interview session. Call Stewart and Williams what you will--the two are friends on and off the field, and a situation that had the potential to be a negative, has been turned into a huge positive for these two. The Panthers are the ones that benefit.

Defensively, the Panthers have got to tighten things up, notably in the secondary. Earlier in the season, Head Coach John Fox made a comment when his DB's were dropping interception chances, that he would "rather been known as ricochet than toast." Well, "toast" is beginning to be more than something served at breakfast. The Panthers are giving up way too many yards through the air, something that doesn't bode well for them against the pass-happy Broncs. Ken Lucas has been taking a beating over the past few days on message boards and the like, but it's the collective unit of the secondary. Corners and safeties combined. The front 7 has been quite good, recording sacks, and bottling up the run (the rush numbers have been better over the past few games). Still, the Panther defense has been better, and they need to find that stride entering their final 3 games--all 3 are huge for them if they want to road to the Super Bowl to roll through Charlotte.

-A quick note on the Bobcats deal of Jared Dudley and Jason Richardson to Phoenix for Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Sean Singletary. It's hard for me to question the strength of this deal--basically because a guy like Larry Brown has forgotten more about basketball than I will ever know, but as an outsider, this deal looks bad. Giving up Richardson, the teams only bonafide scorer, and a high motor player like Dudley for a pair of lower scoring, but better defensive players, and a rookie just doesn't make sense. I wish Richardson and Dudley well in the desert. They were always 2 class guys in the locker room, never shied away from interviews, and were generally fun guys to talk to. How this trade helps them--well, they go to a team that can be a factor in the West. I'm still trying to see the benefit of this one to the Bobcats, but time will tell, I suppose.

Mike Solarte

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Panthers-Bucs: The Preview

It is the biggest regular season game, perhaps, in franchise history for the Panthers. They have a chance to take over possession of first place in the NFC South, and they get to do it on the NFL's biggest regular season stage. So much rides on this game for Carolina, it's hard to bring it all together in one blog post, but we'll try.

Something's gotta give

The Panther rushing attack is no longer a wishful idea for the team. It is a potent piece of the offense, on par, if not ahead of the pace they had going during the Super Bowl season in 2003. Stephen Davis was the motor for that 2003 team. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart carry that load now. Williams is on the verge of becoming the Panthers 1st drafted running back to break through the 1,000 yard season barrier (he's at 955 coming into Monday night). Williams has been the straw that has stirred the running game drink this season, while Stewart has been a more than capable compliment to Williams. Stewart could eclipse 700 yards as a rookie, which would certainly be beyond respectable.

That ground attack will get a stern test Monday, facing a Bucs defense that has given up just 1 rushing touchdown all season long. Think about that. After 12 games, they have given up 1 TD on the ground. 1. Mind boggling, yet a testament to Monte Kiffin's defensive scheming. The Bucs are no wall flowers, as they play a nasty brand of defense. For Carolina to succeed on the ground, it will come down to execution and will. Carolina's offensive line has to win the battle up front (nothing new there), but to do that, they simply have to want it more. They have to try and do to the Bucs what they were doing to the Packers this past Sunday. Tampa Bay is far superior to Green Bay, both in their personnel, and their health. Green bay was very banged up-Tampa is not.

Smith and his razor glove

Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden said of Steve Smith, "that guy is like Freddie Krueger to me," comparing Smith to the 80's horror film character from the nightmare on Elm Street films. Smith, of course, doesn't have the facial scarring of Freddie, but he does have the ability to give the Bucs fits. Smith has 5 100 yard receiving games against Tampa, all against Gruden-coached teams. Does Smith have to blow up against the Bucs? Not necessarily, but he does have to do enough to keep the Bucs defense honest. Smith's ability to draw at least a cornerback, and then a safety shading to his side of the field means the Panthers could exploit the Bucs with the run game. Once Tampa decides against offering help on Smith, the Panthers could make some hay downfield in the air. Jake Delhomme wants to run the ball first, again, no revelation there. Success on the ground will lead to success in the air. Smith isn't the only receiving option, of course. Muhsin Muhammad could prove to be vital, as well as tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario. Would it be far fetched to think the Panthers might try to set up some short screens and keep the Bucs off balance that way? Would sure make things interesting.

Defense needs to bring the jam

The Panther defense has been chewed up of late, allowing a boat load of points, yet the team has won 3 of 4 in that time. Incidentally, the Panthers have not been nearly as dominant as they were before their bye week. Since that time, they have been shredded in the pass game, and allowed plenty of yardage on the ground. What needs to change? Simply put: attitude. Carolina's defenders need to take the field on Monday with the feeling that no one is gaining anything on them. They have to "bring the jam," so to speak. Deliver hard hits, wrap up at the point of contact, drive the Bucs into the turf. The element of "nasty" has been missing from this team for some time. Monday would be the perfect time to find it again.

Keep Jeff Garcia will be object number 1. The Bucs are down to Cadillac Williams as their running back (although Warrick Dunn has shown he still has tread on his tires). Williams tore up his knee 14 months ago, at Bank of America Stadium. He capped his comeback to the field last week, as he scored a rushing touchdown. Will the memories of his injury come back to him? Maybe. The ability to bottle up Garcia will go a long way in forcing the Bucs to try the ground attack, or go through the air. Garcia's ability to use his legs to keep plays alive has been the achilles heel of the Panthers. Carolina simply can not allow Garcia to have additional time. Don't be surprised if the Panthers employ LB Thomas Davis in his "spy" role, the one that was so successful against Michael Vick. Garcia is not the running threat that Vick was, but he is still dangerous with his feet.

Forget the first meeting

It was week 6. The Bucs blocked a punt and scored a TD off the block. The Panthers dug themselves a hole that they simply could not climb out of, thanks to interceptions that came off deflected passes. That game is gone. Over. It can not be changed. Forget it, don't dwell on it, and if anything, use it as a motivator. Carolina can not afford to lose this game, let alone be embarrassed in it. They have everything to play for, with a lot they can lose in the process. All season long, there has been a fan that sits behind the Carolina bench. Every home game, that fan has had a sign that says "Play this game like...." and then lists 3 items underneath. Things like "home field depends on it," or "first place in the division is on the line," things like that. The fan then underscores the points with the simply line at the end, "because it is."

I'll save that fan some time for Monday. All the sign needs to say is, "play this game like your season depends on it. Because it does."

Prediction: Carolina 23 Tampa Bay 17

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tired, but happy

That's the best way to describe me at the moment. Got home from Green Bay Monday night, after a tough weekend on the road. Not much to post for me today--been 2 days since the Panthers won, and that's all well and good. The tough tests come in December, starting Monday against Tampa Bay. HUGE game. We'll look at that one in depth later this week. For now, just a couple camera phone pics from Lambeau Field, before and after the game.

What an atmosphere!

Mike Solarte